Cheerios: Extract from a Story

I decided to break the news over a bottle of wine; there is no need to be uncivil about these things, after all. Amber, I imagined myself saying, I loved you for twenty two years but I no longer do and I think it would be best for us to go our separate ways. I had quite a good sense of her response – one does not marry for two decades without learning to finish the others’ sentences. There would be tears, accusations and then, finally, a cold and resolute acceptance which would hurt more than her anger.

When she came home that evening, saw the candelight, smelt the perfumed air and saw the wine upon the table, a smile ghosted her lips. Those same lips brushed mine and then she looked me up and down and said,

“So, you’re going to tell me? I am glad you’re finally a man.” She uncorked the wine and poured two glasses. She passed one to me. “But I have to tell you something, too. We can’t have a divorce.” She watched me over the rim of her glass, grey eyes serious. “I’m sorry.”

I blinked. No tears. No accusations. Only a cold and resolute…what, acceptance? No, reprimand. I felt like a schoolchild held back for detention.

“Why?” was all I could manage.

“First, let me ask some questions,” she said. She sat and looked up at me. I found it ridiculous that I towered over her yet her gaze made me feel no bigger than an insect. “My first question is a little cliché but then again, you have caught me a little off guard.”

“It doesn’t seem like it,” I said bitterly.

“I wasn’t expecting the wine,” she explained. “Nice touch. So, forgive me for the cliché – who is she?”

“She?”

“The other woman,”

“There isn’t another woman.”

“No?”

“No.”

She considered, swirling the wine in the glass.

“That’s disappointing.”

“Is there another someone for you?” I remembered her earlier comment and found myself unable to say the word ‘man.’

“You aren’t playing by the rules,” she said and not unkindly either. “Please, let me ask the questions first.”

I raised my hands in defeat and she looked pleased.

“Okay,” she said. “Second question – the exact moment?”

I told her and she laughed, a full-bellied laugh, leaning her elbows against the table top and throwing her head back so that her thick hair pooled about her waist.

“Strange man!” she said. “So I will know not to eat Cheerios in the future!”

She stopped laughing as suddenly as she’d started. “Why no other woman?”

I shrugged. I remembered I still had a glass of wine in my hand and took a sip, avoiding her gaze.

“Is that your final question?” I asked eventually.

“Is that your final answer?” she returned, “Because it is dull and I will not answer yours if so.”

I shrugged again.

“Come on,” she said. “Another woman suggests that you have at least some remnant of passion in your life. I want that for you. You should want that for me also. So?”

“There would be no point,” I admitted. “I’m not after…that.”

“No one would do it better, you mean,” she said gently. “Okay, and now I will tell you why we can’t get divorced. Quite simply, we were never married.”

I stared at my wife, my lips trembling a little. I was ready to burst into laughter at the slightest sign of a joke but she didn’t laugh. I began to hate her for being so serious, for taking this so well, for turning the tables, as it were.

I walked over to the window and looked out. We live in a quiet neighbourhood, a ten minute walk from the seafront. It was dark now, so that you couldn’t tell where the sea ended and the horizon began. Streetlights dotted the path up to our road and I stared at them until bright lights danced across my vision.

“Are you going to make me ask?” I said.

“Of course.”

I could almost hear the shrug in her voice.

“What the fuck do you mean never married?” I said.

“Don’t swear at me,” she said, rising and crossing the small distance between us. “You never did, don’t start now.”

I downed the rest of the wine. I couldn’t look at her.

“Oh fuck you Amber.”

“Fuck you back, Nicholas.”

I swiveled. I’d never heard her swear before. She stood close, her eyes like fire and danger emanating from her in waves. She leaned in so close her lips almost brushed mine. She touched a hand to my arm and we stood like that for a moment, dangling on something more fragile than a single strand in a spider’s web.

“I watched you walk down that aisle, didn’t I? I said the vows. I gave you the ring. I kissed you on our wedding day before our family and friends.” My voice was steady but my eyes watered. I couldn’t help it. “How can you tell me we weren’t married?”

To her credit, Amber tells me.

OKOTH’S STRENGTH

It was fine rain – the sort you see, but can’t feel. The sort that makes you wonder if the clouds are filled with dust and the collar of your coat is sprinkled with ashes. The sort of rain that comes to its own in the light, compelling you to question your anatomy. It was, I suppose, what we could call ephemeral rain, drifting to our mortal world and confronting us with the origins of creation.

It was the first rain of the season, which brought much relief to the villagers. There had been no water on the ground for months and no moisture in their air either. Our tongues stuck to the roofs of our mouths, staunching our laughter and contorting our expressions into grimaces. We were all grumbles and sticky sweat. The crops shrivelled, the animals lolled and even Old Man Wambua couldn’t summon enough spittle to launch the bitter kernel seeds he chewed at the fala! children who played pranks on him daily.

But then the rain brought the ghost child. The ghost child was hailed from an unknown land, for her skin was soft and white like winter snow, and her eyes clear. And when the ghost child looked at you, she swallowed you with her gaze.

I was the first to meet the ghost child. First, I heard a sound. I was on the edge of the village, crouched in the undergrowth, sharpening a stick with flint, so I could go fishing in the river.

A thin, mewling noise cut through the mist and I followed the noise until I reached the edge of the Kowling River.

Then came sight. The ghost child floated towards me in a basket woven from bark. When she saw me, she stilled. I remember an intense feeling of ‘peace’ washing over me. I use the term ‘peace’ with no trace of endearment; had I known the child’s powers and the true effect she would have over me, I would have kept on walking. But as it was, I reached out to her, my feet slipping on the riverbank. I saw the child had been provided with a blanket which was threadbare and ugly to look at. I pulled the basket towards me, watching the water’s surface shiver.

The mewling noise had not come from the child. Tucked beneath the blanket was a starving, babe-wolf. I rescued the babe-wolf from the basket first. Perhaps because the ghost child seemed content to wriggle chubby toes in the air, but the babe-wolf was squirming impatiently. Its long snout buried itself into the folds of my coat; most likely the creature was comforted by my coat’s fur. The babe-wolf’s skin was matted and I could feel its bones through its fur. Tears filled my eyes.

Next I scooped the child into my arms awkwardly, for I had never held a child so ungainly before, or so silent.

I took them – both child and wolf – back to the hut that night, and presented them to my wife. Abeni merely smiled and said,

“The gods have answered our prayer.”

Abeni and I fed the ghost child and she gurgled and clapped her hands. The sky cracked. And the next day it rained heavily, and the day after that, until the fields were plenteous and the animals grew round and happy, and the farmers in the village began to smile as they said ‘Habari!’

So we called the ghost-child Okoth, for her name means ‘rain.’ We adopted her – and, of course, the babe-wolf, for the two were inseparable. I am quite sure that what one felt, the other did too. I will never forget the time when my wife – in a fit of rage justified only by Okoth’s obstinacy – smacked our darling ghost child on the arm. As Okoth cried out, so did the wolf, who was curled up by the log fire in another room entirely. And so it came to be that the wolf was named Achen, because she and Okoth were so close they were almost twins. I mean not twins in the traditional sense; but there was a tacit consensus among us that Okoth and Achen were, somehow, birthed from the same mother, if only in spirit.

Curiosity Pleads Innocent

William Macmillan (sometimes called Will, sometimes Wils, but never Willy because ‘the kids will tease me!’) knew it was time for bed. The problem was – as was often the problem – he didn’t want to go bed.

He was curled up by his bookshelf, reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare (unabridged) and contemplating the perilous trip downstairs to make himself a mug of hot cocoa. The journey would have been safer were it not for his mother sending him to bed hours earlier, with strict instructions not to come downstairs. Last time he’d broken that rule, Will had walked in on what he could only assume the Bards’ Iago was referring to when he professed to have witnessed the Moor and Brabantio’s daughter ‘making the beast with two backs.’

Extract: The Psycho’s Path

Twelve thirty pm. Rozman was transported by three guards and a trained Alsatian towards the recreational centre. There he was joined by Aleksandr Zolnerovich, a man with the blood of two people on his hands and their taste in his mouth. Or at least that would have been the case, had Aleksandr not been missing his tongue.

Rozman and the cannibal had slowly gravitated towards each other. They walked up and down the concrete bunker together and over the years had exchanged a total of five sentences. Aleksandr’s words were slurred due to the missing organ but Rozman almost preferred it that way.  Not only were words a superfluous factor when it came to his relationships, but Aleksandr’s tattoos told Rozman all he needed to know.  Each mark of ink was a portrait of struggle against the canvas of the underground criminal networks.

Most of the inmates had been in and out of prison their entire lives and accumulated tattoos like badges. Judging by the different styles of ink on his skin, Rozman deduced that Aleksandr had been inside at least five different prisons. The tattoos varied from delicate cursive fonts, to colourful sleeves to one large piece of artwork that covered his entire back.  The raven upon Aleksandr’s index finger was evidence of gang membership. The kypr, to be exact. Yet the raven had been badly tattooed over with the Bratva mafia insignia, suggesting an attempt to switch gangs – likely the reason for the missing tongue. By far Rozman’s favourite, and the one that sealed the deal on their tacit friendship, was the thick black writing across Aleksandr’s ribs:

Алты́нного во́ра ве́шают, а полти́нного че́ствуют.

Little thieves are hanged, but great ones escape. It reminded Rozman of a story his mother used to read him. He remembered sitting by the fire in their dacha, his dinner growing colder as he listened in rapture whilst his mother spun a tale about two thieves. One thief stole an altyn and the other fifty kopecks. The first was hung but the latter was praised and escaped with his fortune.